Wednesday , 16 October 2019
Fernando Alonso, McLaren Racing-Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday, May 17, 2019 ©2018 Walt Kuhn

How Alonso and McLaren failed to make the 2019 Indy 500 and what they should do next

The fact that Fernando Alonso and McLaren-Chevrolet failed to secure a spot as one of the fastest 33 qualifiers for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 is nothing short of an embarrassment on both parts. Two of the sport’s biggest names were sent home after being bumped by one of the smallest organisations in IndyCar and by a driver who is still a series rookie.

This is a high-profile bumping from one of the biggest global events – not just in motorsport but in sport as a whole. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is full of history, tradition, lore and intrigue and deserves nothing but absolute respect from any driver who dares to take on the unique 2.5-mile rectangle.

McLaren was beaten by some seriously small teams – Juncos Racing, Clauson-Marshall Racing and DragonSpeed – all teams with very little experience of racing at this level if any. Those were three teams who, with all due respect, were expected to struggle to make the field – yet Juncos squeezed in despite crashing the car on Friday, Clauson-Marshall didn’t have to deal with the last row shootout after Pippa Mann’s excellent performance as did – very impressively – rookie Ben Hanley and DragonSpeed.

Nobody is safe – despite what some of the bigger teams would like. The speedway takes no prisoners and some huge names have missed out in the past. Penske failed to get any car ‘in the show’ in 1995 after obliterating the field with its one-off Mercedes engine in 1994. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay had to buy his way into the race back in 2010 after missing out.

But perhaps this result resembles Bobby Rahal’s failure to qualify in his Rahal-Hogan RH-001 in 1993 more than some other big casualties of bumping. Alonso and McLaren failing to make the cut is this year’s huge story – a year on from James Hinchcliffe failing last year. Ultimately, the combination simply was not fast enough.

There are many reasons for this – and the story arguably dates back to 2017. With the complete disaster that was McLaren-Honda’s 2017 season underway, an assault on the Indy 500 was devised. An alliance with Andretti was formed, and McLaren Honda Andretti with Alonso at the wheel had a realistic shot at winning.

The engine failed during the race, but Alonso did enough to be labelled rookie of the year (although there is still an argument that Ed Jones was more worthy of that title). Andretti is a juggernaut in IndyCar and has massive success in the 500. This was not a McLaren entry, but an Andretti one. It would have been more surprising if a car run by the winners of the 2014, ’16 and ’17 races wasn’t up to speed.

The current IndyCar has very different characteristics to the previous generation in which Alonso ran two years ago. But fundamentally qualifying had the same approach – flat to the floor for all 10 miles.

Alonso and McLaren’s public scathing of Honda for its role in a complete lack of success in Formula 1 has had an impact. Honda did not want an association with McLaren again after the F1 mess. That ruled out a McLaren-Andretti alliance once again. It also ruled out getting into bed with other big teams such as Ganassi.

So that left partnering up with Chevrolet-powered teams. Penske wanted nothing to do with it. Ed Carpenter Racing also didn’t want the hassle. It worked out for both of those teams as they got six cars into the top nine in qualifying between them. McLaren eventually partnered with Carlin – a relatively new team, with limited resources and oval experience.

Carlin, a team yet to even finish an IndyCar race in the top three, expanded its own efforts for the race to three cars – fielding rookie Pato O’Ward with one-time race-winner Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton. Despite the assistance, McLaren wanted to go about its approach largely alone.

McLaren was going up against some of the greatest teams actively in motorsport – there’s a very good reason why Ganassi has tasted huge success in IndyCar, NASCAR and sportscars, Andretti has been one of the giants in IndyCar and is almost always a serious force at the 500. As for Penske, it’s obvious that organisation is stellar when it has won over 500 races in very high levels of motorsports.

The preparation – or lack of – began to show from an early stage. In the open test before May, McLaren was hindered by bad weather and poor reliability. Not the end of the world, but certainly a taste of what was to come. Plenty of effort was spent into nuances such as having flashy sponsors and making the garage look ‘a bit more F1’, but there were troubles getting the car up to speed.

Electrical problems hampered the opening day of practice on Tuesday. What laps were completed didn’t put Alonso towards the top but loitering towards the tail-end of the field. But failing to qualify didn’t seem likely at this point.

Alonso himself was to blame for his Wednesday crash, which ruled him out of the remainder of that day and severely hampered the number of laps he was able to complete. Poor weather and a hangover from the previous day’s crash did not make things any easier on Thursday.

It took an alarmingly long time for Alonso to get back on track after his shunt. For comparison, when Hinchcliffe crashed on his qualifying run, his back-up car was set up and readied just a couple of hours later. With excellent work from the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team, Hinchcliffe made the field on Sunday. Even Kyle Kaiser – who crashed his sponsor-less Juncos-entered car on Friday – was ready to take to qualifying on Saturday.

That left just the Friday to get things nailed on for qualifying. Alonso’s best one-lap speed of 229.328 that day would have been more than enough in the hypothetical situation of having four identical best laps. It left him solidly in the lower-middle part of the standings.

And then it became clear that the other teams stepped up their game once qualifying got underway on Saturday. Alonso’s first run was not at all helped by a slow puncture, but it was obvious from the onboard in his other three runs that the car was ill-handling. A lot of movement on the steering wheel was being made in a situation where it should be fluid. Alonso was wrangling everything out of that poorly set up car, but it was only good enough for 31st. Not good enough to nail that starting spot.

A late deal was struck with Andretti Technologies to take some setup and parts. But on Sunday Alonso had just the one shot to make the field. A lack of adjustments made to the tools on the steering wheel was intriguing to watch. He was painfully close, but the fairy-tale of Kaiser and the cash-strapped Juncos minnows edged Alonso by just 0.019mph average – an incredibly small amount.

 

The Juncos Racing team celebrates making the field. Photo: IndyCar

 

In a way, that showcases the level and quality of driving and engineering talent within IndyCar. Not one of the 36 entries were slow. The only entries to fail to make the show were those from Carlin – O’Ward, Chilton and the McLaren-backed Alonso. Kimball was incredibly solid, so it was clear that Carlin can compete. Small team, big team, juggernaut, they were all competitive. The gap between Simon Pagenaud’s pole speed and Kaiser’s speed was just 2.62mph – in similar conditions. That is every car within 101.15% of the pole position speed. It’s immensely competitive.

Blame cannot be apportioned directly to any one party. However, the man in charge of the project – former Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley – has already faced the chop as a direct result of Alonso’s failure to qualify. It is a combination of factors that has led to McLaren simply not being fast enough.

The engineers and mechanics did not extract enough speed out of the equipment they were supplied with. The feedback the driver was giving the team arguably was not as good as it should have been as well. This is where multi-car operations with experienced heads do so well and are why Penske, Ganassi and Andretti are forces almost on every occasion. These are teams that don’t just look for the extra tenth, but the extra hundredth, and sometimes extra thousandth – such is the competitiveness of contemporary Indycar racing.

This has been an underprepared, almost lax McLaren and Alonso that came to Indy with the ambitions of winning the thing – not to make up the numbers. Was there a genuine belief that the Indy 500 was going to be this easy? That some of the best teams actively in motorsport would be toppled at their own game by what was in effect a new operation? It was the completely wrong approach right from the start.

McLaren should’ve committed to an IndyCar programme full-time – something it has openly contemplated – for the start of the 2018 season when the new aerokit came in. It should have learned the subtleties of the discipline and showed that it was willing to put in the proper commitment required to be a genuine contender at winning this thing on its own.

Instead, Alonso must wait another year for his shot at motorsport’s unofficial ‘Triple Crown’. His great career has taken a pretty big dent as a result of this and is a big blotch on his illustrious career. McLaren came into this with ambitions of recreating the great Johnny Rutherford’s win in Papaya Orange some 45 years ago. Instead, it leaves with a reputation already in tatters in F1 completely shredded in the US.

There are two options now for McLaren – either throw in the towel completely or prove that it is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done. It’s just that the job is so much more than just getting in the race, and now it is clear that McLaren can’t even manage that.

As for Alonso’s relationship with the team – time will tell whether he will be standing by the team despite this monumental screw-up, or whether he will break his ties entirely. He has allegiances as it stands with Toyota as well. Someone of Alonso’s calibre would be more than an asset to any other team on the grid, even if he has showcased volatility in the past.

This is but another chapter etched into Indy lore. It has proven on a global scale the level that the series and this one annual event is at right now and how you don’t just rock up, make 800 left turns and take the Borg-Warner Trophy home with you. Indy is so much more than that. It is one of the biggest challenges in motorsport and if Alonso and/or McLaren plans to win it – together or not – then it needs to treat it that way.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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